Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Book Review: Irresponsible Government by Brent Rathgeber

Brent Rathgeber until the fall of 2015 was a Member of Parliament for Edmonton-St. Albert, and in the 2015 election he was an independent candidate for St. Albert-Edmonton. He partnered with Dundurn Press to share his impressions with the failings of the Canadian parliamentary system. This book, if nothing else, is a fascinating snapshot of the Canadian political landscape in 2013. It would be foolish  to dismiss this book as an anti-Harper book from a disgruntled former MP. Rathgeber offers a thoughtful deconstruction of Canadian governance from the perspective of an insider, a man with a particular ideology, and a person who believes in responsible government.

Rathgeber, for context, was an elected representative from 2008 to 2015. He was elected as a Conservative. He was a strong MP who sat on the backbenches. He began running afoul of the Prime Minister's Office over issues of substance early on. The breaking point came when his private member's bill to disclose the salaries and responsibilities of civil servants over a certain amount, similar to the sunshine list in Ontario, was gutted. On orders from the PMO the minimum was raised to over $300000, making it essentially useless. He resigned as a member of Conservative caucus and afterwards became a much more outspoken critic of the Stephen Harper government. That all said, this is not a partisan rant, or an excuse for Rathgeber to sharpen knifes and get back at old slights.

The title of the book is taken from the loss of responsible government, the system by which the executive is held to account by the elected representatives of the people. Rathgeber suggests that the government in Canada today hardly reflects this initial principle in our governance. The decline of Canada's parliament has taken decades to unfold and has been the responsibility of Liberal and (Progressive) Conservative Prime Ministers. If you're familiar with my blog you are well-versed in the long list of problems, and Rathgeber shares his take on them. While I cannot recall if Rathgeber labels his ideological stance, but libertarian or fiscal conservative would probably be the best fit. He suggests that the tremendous growth of the government and social welfare programs and bureaucracies make it incredibly challenging for Members of Parliaments to properly scrutinize spending and understand it. It's a rarely heard argument.

The book is divided into brief, comprehensive chapters tackling a specific aspect of the problem: cabinet as a bloated, ineffective institution; convoluted program spending; excessive party discipline; centralization of power in the Prime Minister's Office; the toxic partisan atmosphere of the PMO; the ineffectiveness of the media and broken access to information laws.

While much of Rathgeber's arguments will be familiar to those familiar with this debate he does offer something new. His take on a couple of topics is different from what I've read elsewhere and so I imagine those fascinated by this subject will gain something valuable. Rathgeber also tackles the topic of electoral reform and possible solutions to our irresponsible government. The author thinks the system's original structure is worth preserving and therefore is hesitant about a total overall proportional representation would suggest, but alternative vote seems to appeal to him. One of the bolder recommendations he made was that outside of the Prime Minister the cabinet should be drawn from outside of the Parliament so that MPs can focus on the business of governing rather than try to fulfill their ambitions. It is a radical solution, which at first I rejected, but I think it might have real merit in the provinces where legislatures are smaller.

The book has some issues. Having been published in 2014 the book is remarkably of that time. The Mike Duffy scandal is very much unfolding and the future of the Harper ministry is unclear. Still the snapshot is very informative and does not hinder it a great deal. And for those who think the election of the Liberal government in 2015 fixes these problems I would suggest they consider the institutional flaws discussed in this text. Finally, the editing of this book was sloppy in places. In one chapter it appears two versions of a paragraph appear one after the other. There are a few instances when I rolled my eyes at the errors of the editor. Aside from these flaws this is a valuable text from a wonderful former Member of Parliament with insight to the crisis at the heart of our political life. Even the ideological disagreements between myself and the author helped to illustrate other potential issues and causes worth pondering. If only all our MPs could have this as a guide we'd be well on our way to a better, more responsible government.


Jared Milne said...

I worked on Brent Rathgeber's re-election campaign last year in his riding. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful, in large part because we didn't have a party that people could rally to. We were also a mix of different political stripes-we had libertarians, we had conservatives, we had progressives, and more.

Our campaign was united by our support for Brent's principled stance and our desire to try and address many of the problems he was criticizing. While Brent is certainly conservative, by and large it was his stance on democracy and responsible government that led people to support him.

Brent's loss was disappointing, but that doesn't take away from the courage and integrity he displayed...something that's all too lacking in this or any era.

SJL said...

Good for you Jared. Overcoming the power of party branding is very difficult. It shouldn't reflect on the quality of the candidates. I've seen the worst candidate win in too many elections to shouldn't take much from one's defeat. If I was a resident of St. Albert-Edmonton I believe I would have cast a ballot for him. I hope he returns to public life in the future.